Back in August of 2013, I received a call from a transfusion medicine doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where I donate blood. “You have really lipemic plasma,” she told me.
She explained that after they receive a whole blood donation, they separate it into two distinct parts: red blood cells and plasma. She said that my donations were very much appreciated, and that my red cells had been fine, but that they had only been able to use the plasma in my donations twice.
“Normal plasma has the constitution of apple juice,” she explained. “Yours looks more like a milkshake”.
She said that my fatty plasma could be an indicator of high triglycerides, and she recommended I let my doctor know. I thanked her for the information, and for caring enough to bring it to my attention.
I knew of which she was speaking. My triglycerides have been notoriously high – “off the charts” high, even – since at least as far back as my twenties. And high triglycerides are a possible risk factor for arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). They often are found in conjunction with things like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, smoking, alcohol consumption, and a sedentary lifestyle. In my case, though, none of those other risk factors apply, so it’s hard to know how dangerous the triglyceride level might be in and of itself. (I have also had consistently low HDL – or “good” – cholesterol, regardless of how much I exercise, which suggests a genetic predisposition.)
Still, who wants to have an alarming number for any potential risk factor? I did, in fact, go to see my doctor, and when the results of my blood work came back, my triglyceride count (which should optimally be less than 150), measured in at a hefty 531.
In the past I had essentially shrugged off this normal-for-me-if-crazy-high-for-other-living-creatures number, seeing as how there were no other causes for concern in my lab results. But now, armed with the information that my plasma was so fatty as to be deemed unusable for those in need as a direct result of this number, it gave me pause.
I did not want to take any meds, especially if this was something I might be able to manage on my own through lifestyle tweaking. But – and the reason I had always avoided making any such efforts prior – one of the main suggested ways (that I wasn’t already implementing) to decrease one’s triglycerides is to: “reduce or eliminate sweets”.
sweets, n. 1. any of a variety of the most pleasurable edible things on Earth, including: chocolate chip cookies, brownies, ice cream, birthday cake, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. 2. the reward for eating your dinner, being nice to your brother or sister, cleaning up your room, or otherwise being an exemplary human being.
I had wondered for years if I was actually addicted to sugar. I speculated that I might be, but I really didn’t want to have to do what it would take to find out.
Finally, though, with the words “really lipemic plasma” being the apparent tipping point, I decided I would put myself to the test and see if I could go a full month without ingesting any of my lifelong sugary friends (and, if I could, see what would happen as a result). I spent the month of January 2014 in monkish abstention, and wrote all about it in a post entitled A Month Without Sweets (A Report From The Trenches).
Because the results were so positive, and because – to my great surprise – I really didn’t find it all that difficult to do, I kept going.
(I got this. I’ll do six!).
And then, if only just to be able to say I did, I decided to double down and make it a year. Whereas before this experiment the prospect of doing so would have seemed like utter torture to me, at this point I knew I could do it. And, sure enough, I did.
Piece of cake. 🙂
For the entire calendar year of 2014, I stuck to the rules I had outlined for myself in that initial month-long experiment.
I was really curious to see what the results of this would be, given what had happened in just the first month.
Without further ado, here they are:
Weight: I lost right around ten pounds in January. After that, the weight loss pretty much stopped. But, some mild fluctuations in either direction notwithstanding, I kept most of that off for the duration of the year. It seemed my body had arrived at a new homeostasis. Low 160s had replaced high 160s. Which seems just about right to me (I’m about 5’8”). A number of people did notice and comment that I looked lighter and healthier.
Energy levels: Remained the same. No noticeable/perceived difference for me there, even compared to before conducting this experiment at all (this, of course, is purely subjective and memory-based). Kind of disappointing, but the truth in my experience.
Difficulty: Did it get easier or harder to do this as time went on? I’d say, if anything, easier. There is something about momentum that (for me, at least) is a big psychological motivator. And, of course, a new habit has been installed – a new normal established. I feel I could pretty easily go another year as I’ve been doing without any problem, if I so choose.
(Difficulty is a curiously relative, and not always static, thing. Walking was once difficult for most of us. Until, with practice, it wasn’t.)
Plasma: I called the doc again from Cedars and – jogging her memory about who I was, and telling her that I had made changes to my diet – asked if she could check my blood donations from this past year and let me know whether or not the plasma had been usable. Her report was the opposite from her first one to me. Over the past year, the plasma in my donations had been usable – in all but one instance. Curious as could be, I asked her which donation had the unusable plasma (guessing it would have been the earliest one, in January, when I was only two weeks into my experiment). Weirdly enough, it turned out to be a July donation that was the culprit – right smack dab in the middle of the year.
And, finally, what impact did going a full year without sweets have on my triglycerides? Only one month in, the number had dropped by hundreds from the sample taken about five months before that (531), to a near-optimal 168.
Would they have changed for the better after 11 more months? Gotten worse? Stayed the same?
I had my annual physical earlier this month, and the results are in. The new triglyceride number?
Did this suggest that, after my body’s initially positive response to the dietary change, it reverted back to its pre-programmed norm? Did nature simply overpower nurture? Were there other variables I wasn’t aware of?
Does it not make a lick of difference, in the end – as far as my triglycerides are concerned – whether or not I indulge in sugary delights? Maybe not. I don’t know. It’s kind of a mystery.
However, abstaining from sweets for a full year did have at least three payoffs:
1. The weight loss was real, as was keeping it off.
2. The plasma in my blood donations did become much more consistently transfusion-friendly, potentially benefiting others (and probably making me healthier, too).
3. Perhaps more than anything, this was a victory of the will. Of mind over sugar. I proved I could do it. I exercised that uniquely human ability to exert – and assert – restraint in having dessert. I now have this experiential point of reference for my ability to resist temporary pleasure for some longer-term gain, which I can apply – in all likelihood – to other realms.
I also learned that some things are much more difficult in our imaginations than in actuality, and that the only way to make such a discovery is to face a fear and find out for ourselves.
So, was I – am I, addicted to sugar? My results suggest to me: probably not. Or, if so, it wasn’t as strong an addiction as I might have guessed. I say this because I did not experience any kind of withdrawal symptoms, nor any really over-the-top cravings. There were no close calls. Not one.
Sure, I had to resist delectable goodies that were sometimes right in front of me, and I had to employ genuine discipline. Frequently, even. But it really, honestly, for whatever reason(s), wasn’t nearly as hard as I imagined it would be.
Maybe this was because I had simply made up my mind that this is what I was doing, and so it was not something I needed to deliberate about. It was already, and always, a given that I wasn’t going to partake. Period.
As more time passed, the temporary fix seemed less and less worth it. After all, I had a streak going! And the longer the streak was, the more I had to lose by breaking it. It felt daring to keep upping the ante. “Yeah, I’ll do a year. Watch me!”
I also think having a playful attitude about it was helpful. For instance, on a visit to see my family in Philly back in May, my parents took my wife and me out to, of all places, Friendly’s. For those unfamiliar, Friendly’s is known for its ice cream menu – sundaes, in particular (they also have a secondary menu chock-full of greasy burgers, fries, and other decidedly heart-unfriendly offerings). I scanned the menu, wondering if I could find something – anything – to eat (I’m a vegetarian, as well). And then, finally: paydirt.
“I’ll have a side order of broccoli,” I told the waiter, enjoying every moment of my parents’ disbelief. “Plain, please.”
Now that I’ve gone a full year without sweets, something I’d never guessed I’d ever do by choice (and something that, to at least one friend of mine, is more impressive than finishing an Ironman!), the obvious question is: what now? Is there any going back? (Especially since the triglycerides are still sky-high anyway?)
Can a balance be struck between total deprivation and overindulgence? Might I, for instance, allow myself the occasional treat – say, once a week? And really make a point of savoring the experience? Or would doing so be a slippery slope down a path of increasingly negotiable restrictions and an eventual total collapse of my resolve? Might it actually be easier to continue refraining and make this my modus operandi, rather than have to deliberate as to where, when, how, and under what circumstances I can indulge my sweet tooth?
Perhaps another experiment is in order!